When Ron Tomczak passed away suddenly in 2007, Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar lost much more than a valuable assistant.
The 69-year-old Tomczak, who spent two-thirds of his life coaching football, had been a mentor and a friend to Zvonar, who leaned on the Hall of Famer for guidance as the young Griffins program took shape in the early 2000s. Zvonar relished having an experienced voice in coaches meetings and the locker room. More than that, he appreciated that same voice calling him "out of the blue" on any given night with words of advice and support.
It's the reason Zvonar made what he called a "no-brainer" decision that fall to honor Tomczak's legacy as a father, coach, mentor and friend a mere six months after the legendary coach's death. So when the Griffins took the field for their annual intrasquad game a week before their regular season began, they did so during the Ron Tomczak Black and Blue scrimmage.
Ten years later the tradition has carried on, and then some.
Thousands from the Frankfort community gathered in the team's stadium last Friday night to watch the 2016 Griffins take the field for the first time, and also to honor the legacy of a man instrumental toward helping build the program into one of the premier teams in Illinois.
Tomczak coached at T.F. North for 16 seasons, earning 89 victories in his tenure. He coached the Meteors to a pair of playoff berths, including a 10-2 season and berth in the state semifinals with his son, Mike, under center. Mike went on to Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to two Big Ten championships before a 15-year NFL career with stops in Chicago, Green Bay, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
Ron continued his coaching career at Lincoln-Way East in 2001, serving as an assistant under Zvonar one year after the program’s inaugural season. Ron's son, Steve, was also an assistant at East during that time, and when Zvonar approached him and the Tomczak family about honoring their father at the annual scrimmage, they were thrilled.
"Coach Z was gracious enough when my father passed to say, 'This is what we're going to do, and we're going to do it every year really big and make it a big celebration,'" said Steve, who runs Body Tech Total Fitness in Frankfort, where Ron also worked in his later years. "That's the type of person (Zvonar) is, the type of man he is. He said as long as I'm here we're going to do this."
Added Ron Jr.: "Coach Z, I think my dad taught (Zvonar) a lot when he initially started, and he looked to my dad as a mentor."
Ron was a perfectionist, a trait that's easy to see has rubbed off in the way Zvonar leads a Griffins group with state-title aspirations in 2016.
Ron Jr. recalled his father putting together practice plans for the fall as soon as the Fourth of July rolled around. Months before the official start of the IHSA season he had the equipment room organized to a fault and his practice plan for two-a-days completed. Ron spent just as much time with the scout kickoff team as he did with the first-team offense, and he always made time to coach up anyone who asked for it.
"If anybody wanted to work he was there," Ron Jr. said, "if there was one kid or there were 40 kids out there."
When he returned to Lincoln-Way East as an assistant - he also taught driver's ed at the school - his passion, drive and work ethic rubbed off on the rest of the coaching staff.
"Most men his age would be retired on the golf course," Zvonar said, "and he was still coming out here in his late 60s coaching football. He meant so much to me as a mentor."
It's why simply honoring Ron, who was inducted into the IHSA Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1986, with a scrimmage in his name wasn't enough. Zvonar makes a point each season of instilling in his team the importance Tomczak had on both him and the program. Though the 118 players on this year's East team are too young to remember Tomczak, they understand what he meant to the program because of Zvonar.
The highlight of the night is a spaghetti dinner inside the stadium, with proceeds going directly to a scholarship in Ron's name. Candidates from the team submit letters, must be in good standing academically and have an eye toward playing football collegiately. The coaching staff then selects candidates to present to the family, which makes the final decision in May on one to two players to receive the scholarship.
"I don't want to just say, "Hey, it's the Ron Tomczak scrimmage,'" Zvonar said. "We've got to go back and talk about who he was and what he stood for. And if we can continue to pass his legacy down to other generations, we sure will."
Added wide receiver Nick Zelenika, whose brother John - now at Illinois Wesleyan - was awarded the scholarship in 2015: "Coach Z talks a lot about him. He got this program rolling. He set the example for this program. Coach Z looks up to him as a role model, and we have a ton of respect for him. He definitely set an example for our high school."
The Tomczak family has been an integral part of the Lincoln-Way East program, and the impact Ron had during his time will continue to help define its future successes. It will also come full-circle next season when his grandson, current sophomore starting defensive back Jake, joins the varsity team. Another one of his grandsons, Max, will start at Lincoln-Way East next fall. But even when the last Tomczak has played his final snap for the Griffins, Ron Tomczak's legacy will live on each year as a reminder of what it takes to build a winner, and how to do so the right way.
"He was near and dear to our hearts," Zvonar said. "And as long as I'm here we'll always remember him.”